Monday, September 07, 2009
It started early. Too early but there was the anticipation of a good day to come. A drive through the mountains just as they surrender themselves to the rising sun is a good start. The mist withdrawing its smoky curls slowly, reluctant to reveal the mystery it had enrobed. The notes of the flute, sighing as they flitted away into the air. The darkness of dawn making silence a very comfortable companion.
Then, the full burst of the sun that cajoled us out of agreeable languor and into visible excitement. The river was wide and calm, held together by unbroken lines of tree green. There were instructions that sounded complicated till we got into the raft and tried them out. This is not so difficult after all. Mistakes that don’t have big consequences are very reassuring to commit. There was also an entertaining guide who couldn’t stop talking and seemed very intent on establishing his youth and bachelorhood, an arrogance upheld by unfavourable comparison with the rest of us in the raft.
Rapids accompanied by frantic rowing, exclamatory shouts and showing of teeth. Then floating along, thinking verdant is the perfect tranquil hue. The last even stretch of river beckoned but the invitation was viewed a little warily, afraid of underestimating it. Then the foretaste of the regret of not having tried overcame other fears and they were allowed to flow away into the water. But still tentativeness. Then the reminder to be calm and surrender to rational thought. A life jacket doesn’t allow you to drown. The body floated and then it swam. Then it thought, this is awesome. I’m actually swimming in a river.
A face splotched with sunburn maintains temporary testimony to the awesomeness.
A wonderful day so far. More than good. But perfection was still hiding in the unexpected.
The drive back in the full splendour of daylight. Green hills swimming in and out of the clouds. Green valleys dancing in and out of the sunlight. Sheer cliffs an inch away from our noses sporting waterfalls down their backs. Docile, undulating hill tops caressing threatening, towering crags. Gasps of awe. How is it possible for anything to be so beautiful.
Yet, perfection laughed. You don’t know who I am yet.
Then we saw it. Beauty is neither tame nor inhibited. It rumbles out of the earth, magnificent and overpowering. Submission and awe. That’s all that’s allowed of you. Sheer expanse of rock. Swift clouds unveiling and veiling them. Waters roaring down into a needle-thin crevice that expands into a narrow crook of trees that ends in a coiled river which disappears into a blanket of fields sprinkled by light through every cleft of cloud.
The drive home in the comfort of people you don’t share your secrets with. But they have shared in this experience. That makes them beloved.
Then the stumbling upon the perfect movie. Not a brilliant one, maybe not even a good one. But the perfect one. The one that takes the textures of your mood and sketches out for you the perfect full stop to your day.
There are days. Then, there are days.
She woke a few hours later to find the room dissolved into the moonlight. Crickets sang gustily, the rhythm broken once in a while by the sound of animals she did not recognise. Death would be like this, she thought—still. She would never have to think another thought or feel another emotion. Sixty years of life wasn’t a bad deal, though she couldn’t remember anything of significance that she had done. She put on her glasses. She furrowed her brow, trying to pick out the worthwhile moments of her life. But they wouldn’t come and she turned and switched on the bedside lamp.
It wasn’t very bright. It gave off a faint red glow that didn’t quite reach all the corners of the room. A half-finished book lay face down on the night stand—another twenty pages to go. If she didn’t read it now, she would never know how it ended. She smiled. She liked that feeling—to die without tying things up neatly.
Her throat felt parched. She poured herself a glass of water. She felt the cool water travel all the way to her stomach. She adjusted herself into a more comfortable position, took off her glasses and placed it on the night stand. She moved her head to the side and closed her eyes.
Tuesday, March 06, 2007
She sat on her bed in her hostel room and looked at photographs. He'll come back to me, she said. She wept once more. She wept for a month.
Her friends dragged her to parties, movies and cricket matches, and set her up with other guys. "You need to get over him." "No," she said. They gave up.
When Radhika went home with a bad report card, she told her parents she didn't want to go back to college. Pati said, "Why don't you come and live with me for a while?"
"I'll never forget him," she said, lying in Pati's lap. Pati merely ran her hand over Radhika's head. It had been two months since she had moved into Pati's house.
She had spent the first few weeks lying in bed till late or moping around. Pati didn't complain or ask any questions. Then she shrugged off her lethargy and made herself useful around the house.
The days shaped themselves into a soothing routine. Thangaraj thatha dropped in often. He lived alone next door. He liked to come over and talk to Pati. Now he found a new audience in Radhika.
"As a little boy," he reminisced, "I was always running away. I wanted to see the world. But I would come back whenever I got too hungry. I was 14 before I left for real. I landed in Calcutta. While stepping out of the train, I remember thinking to myself, 'The world is so big it never ends. I'm like a bird, free to go wherever the moment takes me.' I did all kinds of jobs, earned enough to get by, and wrote the occasional letter home.”
"So when did you decide to come back?"
"When I became old."
Radhika laughed. "How did you know you had become old?"
"Ah, you see, the young are restless in spirit. There is always something out there that calls to them. Then one day, they wake up and long for home. That's when they know they're no longer young. So I found my way back home."
"Do you have any regrets?"
"Regrets? Ah no. I've come full circle. If you're able to do that, you're blessed."
"Look at you go on," Pati admonished him as she walked out to the verandah, "this child doesn't have time for your useless meanderings."
Thatha chuckled, "Don't grudge an old man his indulgences. It's all he has."
Radhika and her grandmother stopped by at Ravi anna's cart to buy vegetables.
"Ah, I see your granddaughter is getting some sunshine these days. That's good, that's good… men like healthy girls. Anyway, it's time you got her married, you shouldn't leave these things too late."
Radhika laughed. "Maybe I don't want to get married, maybe I want to go see the world like Thangaraj thatha." Ravi anna hit his forehead with his palm. "You keep that senile old man away from this girl," he told Pati. "Putting silly ideas into her head. What does he know of life? He ran away. He didn't have anybody to think of but himself. If he had five brothers and sisters to take care of like I did, all his airy-fairy ideas would have evaporated in an instant."
"Wouldn't you have liked to visit new places and meet new people?"
"Why would I, I ask? Does a different sun shine on the rest of the world? Do other people not do the same things we do—eat, sleep and work to keep body and soul together? One should be content with what God has given you." He overturned the basket of tomatoes into Pati's bag.
Radhika told Pati, "Everyone has such a different opinion of life. Their dreams and desires, they’re all so different. What are we looking for? Are we all looking for the same thing? How do we know if we’re right or wrong?"
"Is there a right and wrong? I’m not sure. You make your choice and then put your trust in life."
"I used to think love was the only thing that made life worthwhile. But there are other things, aren’t there? I don’t know."
"Keep faith, my dear. Life is its own healer. It will take you where you should go.
"My first love was the daughter of my landlord. She was as fair as milk. She lived in the building opposite mine; I would see her everyday when she watered the plants in the balcony. Ah, she gave me a lot of sleepless nights, that one."
"Then what happened?" Radhika asked thatha.
"It was a grand romance," he chuckled, "all in my imagination. But I had many loves after that."
"Didn't you ever find the one person who is meant for you?"
Thatha titled his head a little, "You really think there is someone like that?
"I know so. And when you lose it, you've lost everything."
He shook his head a few times, "No, no, love is never that cruel. It keeps coming back in different forms. You never really lose it."
Radhika was drawing water from the well in the compound when Revathi walked in through the gate with a bucket of jasmine flowers in her hand. "We haven't seen you around for a long time," Radhika said. Revathi grinned widely, "You know how it is. There's so much to do, there's never enough time."
When Radhika brought out a vessel to collect the flowers, she noticed bruising on the side of Revathi's head. "What happened there?" she asked. "Oh, I am such a clumsy klutz," Revathi laughed, "What, so little flowers? Put lots of flowers on your hair girl, how will you impress your groom otherwise?"
Pati told her later that Revathi's husband had a drinking problem and would often beat her.
The next time Revathi came by, Radhika asked her, "Why don't you complain to the police." Revathi looked shocked. "What are you saying? He's my husband, and he only beats me when he's drunk. When he's sober, he's the most loving man you could ask for."
Ravi anna came over with the wedding invitation card. "It's such a good match. The boy has done his M.A and has a good government job. Now all my girls are settled, I can rest in peace."
Pati and he discussed the wedding arrangements. Radhika thought, "How easily he accepts that his daughter will be happy. And maybe she will be."
She asked Pati about Thatha. "Thangaraj thatha?" "No, my thatha."
"I was 15 when I got married to him. He was 17. We were both very shy. We hardly spoke to each other. Within a year, he fell ill."
"How did you manage?"
"I went back to my parent's place with your father. I worked in the fields. I made sure your father got a proper education and made a life for himself. When my parents died, your father bought me this house."
"Didn't you want to move to the city with us?"
"This is all I've ever known. What would I do there?"
"Don't you feel lonely? Or angry?"
"No, where was the time for loneliness? Everyday living itself takes up such a lot of time."
"Now, what? Like I said, this is all I've ever known. So I have nothing to cry or be angry about."
"It's funny how you can run around in circles and still end up in the same place," Thangaraj thatha said. "But, you see, the journey is important. How would this place have meaning otherwise?"
Radhika sat next to the window and pushed her hands out through the grill. Pati and Thangaraj thatha held her hands till the train started to move.
Love? Journey? Destiny? Acceptance?
"Memory," she thought," as she leaned back into her seat. "All life is memory. And through memory lost, we lose so much of ourselves, every minute of our lives. In the end, we're left with very little—only those wisps of remembrances that slip through the fingers with which we try to hold them.
"This too shall be forgotten someday, like I have forgotten Arun.”
She sat by the window near her cubicle with a glass of tea in her hand. A letter was folded and placed on top of an envelope. Thatha was gone. It was three years since she had seen him.
She had returned to finish college. After a couple of nondescript jobs, she was now working for a top IT company. Then she met Sameer. She was cautious, constantly trying to discover if there was a way to know for sure.
Sameer dropped her off at the airport. "I'm here for you."
She stood by the pyre and fished for memories of thatha and realised that some of them had already been erased. She looked at Pati; she was looking much older too. And calm.
"Maybe, it’s the imprint of memory,” Radhika said, as she and Pati walked back to the house. "Even if I forget everything about him, he's still a part of me, meeting him, and you, changed me, just like every person you meet changes you. Every place you visit. Every thing you do. Every truth you shape for yourself."
She lay in bed, looking up in the darkness. "There is no way to know for sure, not unless you make the choice and see for yourself." Life with Sameer would be what they made it. She would tell him tomorrow.
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
The prince didn't believe in fairy tales. He had his feet firmly on the ground and his head firmly on his shoulders. He had a kingdom to run now. He was going to be king.
Years passed and the new king matured into a good ruler – kind and benevolent, brave and wise. Little by little, he cast away all his fancies and romances and retained only the manners and thoughts dignifying a king.
Then one day as he was riding in the woods he spotted a slipper lying near a bush. He took a closer look. It was a glass slipper. "Cinderella!" He smiled bemusedly and rode on. On the way back, however, he picked it up. By the time he returned to the palace, he was laughing at his own foolishness and put it away in the corner of a closet.
That winter, at a ball held by the queen of the neighbouring kingdom, his life changed forever. It wasn't as dramatic as that of course and the prince had no idea of it at the time.
She wasn't breathtakingly beautiful or noticeably charming. But when he sat next to her at the dinner table, conversation flowed easily and without pretence. A year later he got down on his knees and asked her to marry him.
They were very happy together. Everyday, the king would wake up and look upon her face and think how lucky he was. Their love was true and strong, and would stand the test of time. In time, they became parents – of two charming boys and a delightful girl. Life was perfect.
Then one day, the queen chanced upon the glass slipper. She teased him, "And which fair maiden have you been secretly dreaming about?" He laughed, "I found that in the woods a long time ago. I was young and foolish."
"Let me try it on and see if I'm really your true love."
"Now you are being foolish."
They both laughed as she slipped her foot into the slipper.
"Oh no, my feet are too big. How can you love me now?" the queen asked, her eyes full of mischief.
"I must do the best I can, mustn't I?" the king retorted, as he took the slipper from her and put it back into the closet.
The queen linked her arm with his, and they both walked contentedly in the gardens.
That night, however, while the queen was asleep, the king sat looking at the slipper for a long time. Then he sighed, and pushed it back farther into the closet.
There was nothing you could put a finger on. But there was something different in the way the king looked at the queen now. And it made the queen sad, though she didn't know this at first. Slowly, without either of them noticing it, they laughed less and they talked less. One day, they realised they had nothing left to laugh about together and nothing to say to each other.
The queen became sick. Doctors were called in from far and wide, but they couldn't help her. The king was heartbroken.
"I still love you very much," he told her.
"You don't look at me in that way anymore."
The king wept. "I don't know how to."
She died in his arms.
The king walked up to the closet, took out the glass slipper, and flung it against the wall. It shattered into a million pieces.
Saturday, September 02, 2006
Sometimes a road you had left behind catches up with you at another crossroad. It would be foolish to ignore it twice.
She left on a winter morning, wearing a cream sweater, her black hair falling over it. She had waited at the door for some time, as if thinking she should say something, then deciding it was useless, walked away. I can't picture it clearly anymore; I just know this is how it happened.
She had come to my room to return a book I had left in the canteen. At the time, I didn't ask her what she was doing in the boys' hostel. Or her name. The latter didn't take too long to find out. When I questioned her later about the former, she had replied, "I was returning your book." "But you're not allowed in the boys' hostel." "I know." "You could have returned the book to me in class." "Yes."
It wasn't love at first sight. It's just that we remember beginnings. And endings. We grew on each other gradually. We looked at the rest of our lives and ordered it into neat little patterns in the way only people who have seen very little of life can. One day she sat up and exclaimed, "But I don't even want to go down that road," and said goodbye.
The years since have been good to me. I found someone else to hold me close at night and in the daylight to look me straight in the eye. I filled my days with purpose; I was content with who I was. But if I could do it all over again, I would do it differently.
I reached the restaurant early so that I could see her walk in. She hadn't changed at all – her black eyes were fierce as ever, her black hair tumbled messily onto her shoulder, and she walked, as always, as if in a hurry to get somewhere. She came up to me and smiled hello. And I knew she had changed in ways I would never know.
"It feels like yesterday and yet like a million light years," I said.
"It's really all the same," she replied, as she sat down.
"What made you think of me?"
"I always think of you."
"Are you happy?" she asked.
"Yes," I said, "I'm married to an amazing woman, whom I love very much. I love what I do. Life's been good to me. If I die today, there'll be no regrets."
"But you would still wonder."
"I would still wonder."
"I broke up with my boyfriend two months ago, after 10 years. He said I made him very happy and that he could have stayed if he hadn't known I was more than he could know."
"You wanted him to stay?"
"I love you" I said.
And we talked. Conversations to fill up the spaces we had missed. We took them in small, lingering sips. We took them in huge, greedy gulps. We watched as the sun went down.
"It's time for me to go," she said.
"Down another road?" I asked.
She laughed, "Of course. Is there any other way?"
"No," I replied.
I stood outside the restaurant savoring the cold wind on my skin. It's foolish to ignore a road twice. But then we are foolish. Or maybe, some people are just meant for crossroads.
Monday, September 26, 2005
Sachin waited till the train started moving before jumping in. The disgusted looks he got from the women standing near the door didn’t bother him. He still hurt all over from the thrashing his father had given him last night. He smiled wryly – just another drunken boor for a father. The chawl was filled with lives like his.
It had been only two weeks since his mother had left them and he had dropped out of school. His father had insisted on it. But he was glad. School had only added to the tediousness of his life. He liked the colour and bustle of the local trains.
Amol had taught him how to do a sales pitch. Though two years younger to him, Amol was a veteran on the trains. Start out with the ladies’ compartments, Amol had told him. Women like kids, so that’s already a point in your favour, he said. Sachin experimented, modifying his babble till he got it right and then vocalised it with a mix of cuteness, impishness and audacity. The women will swoon, Amol avowed.
Yesterday he had made his first sale. He had been about to get off the train after passing three stations when somebody called out to him. He took a deep breath, then turned around wearing his broadest grin. There were three college girls. College girls loved trinkets. As the girls rummaged through the box of earrings, he sat on the edge of the seat and offered his opinion. “Take this one madam. This blue colour matches your dress perfectly… Try this long one. Your face is round, so it will look really nice… It’s only Rs 10 each madam. Buy all four…”
Sachin got off at the next station and sat on the bench, counting the money over and over again. He then bought a wada pav. My money, he thought. When he decided to go home, the last wisps of twilight had faded away. He sat at the edge of the door of the train, his eyes closed, letting the wind whip his hair into disarray.
He was whistling when he had walked in the door. “So you’ve finally come?” He turned around to see his father sitting against the wall, bottle in his hand.
“Yes,” Sachin mumbled and went towards the kitchen.
“Wait,” said his father, “where are you going? Did you make any money today?”
“So where is it? Hand it over.”
Sachin stood staring at his father.
“What happened? Have you been struck by paralysis?”
“Well, that’s nice to hear. Now give me the money.”
“No!” Sachin wasn’t sure he had actually said that.
“What did you say?”
Sachin did not reply.
His father got up.
“What did you say?”
Sachin took a step back.
Sachin lay on his stomach all night, his eyes dry and awake. He had tiptoed out of the house this morning before his father woke up, taking with him a few clothes in his school satchel.
He spent another good day in the trains. At , he alighted at VT station. He bought some food and found an empty bench at the far end of the platform. He watched the people and trains come and go for a long time. He lay down along the length of the concrete bench, using his satchel as a pillow.
He woke up with a start. There were very few people around now. They spoke in whispers that echoed off the walls. The lights were dim and the shadows towered up to the ceiling. He shivered and curled his body in a little closer. He didn’t go back to sleep.
When morning came, he bought a pair of scissors, a spindle of thread, and a needle. He sat down on the pavement and carefully removed the stitches of the lining in his satchel. He put Rs. 20 inside it and carefully sewed it up again. He put the remaining Rs. 30 in his pocket and made a running jump into a train as it pulled out of the station.
His father was still asleep when he got home. Sachin got into bed, and looked at his satchel for some time before closing his eyes. Some day, he promised himself.
His smile would spread slowly on his face, the dimples getting deeper. The laughter in his eyes – warm, wicked, incorrigible. Which was why she had stared at him a little longer than was polite. She had turned her head away when she caught his eye. When she looked up again, he was laughing with his friends. But he was laughing at her. He knew that she knew.
The memory lingered for a few days and was forgotten. Eight months later, she met him at a friend’s party. She couldn’t recollect where she had seen him before. It came back only months later. When she remembered she had smiled.
He understood her restlessness. He saw through it, turned it upside down, mocked it, and let it be. He ripped apart all her questions, dismissed her answers and swore everlasting love. Not as a promise. As a certainty. A fact. Irrelevant and negligible.
When he loved, he was the ocean. Wild, raging calm. She drowned. Gasped for air as he sat back and watched, and then turned away. He was there, whichever way she turned. So big she could not see him. And she slept. Like a baby.
She asked for promises. He refused every one. He held her hand in his as she walked upon water. She sang to him of worlds forgotten. He kissed her lips. And never stopped. He spoke in whispers, unraveling the mystery of the ages. He swept the world into his arms and overturned it in her lap.
He taught her to dance to the rhythm of the stars. He played the tune. He was the Pied Piper. She was the bird in the golden cage. She turned the key and threw it away.
Today, she watched the sunrise on his body. She bent down to kiss his hand. Then she dressed, took the knapsack from under the bed and walked out the door. And all the while he had smiled, she thought. That slow smile. The deep dimples. Wicked laughter. Warm and incorrigible.
She would come back. In another eternity. He would forget about her. He would wait for her. He would search all the heavens. Let the eternity pass. Laugh at her.
And she would always run.